Midterm update from UMass

Posted on March 15, 2016 by

This post is guest-written by Alberto Moron Hernandez, and is the second in a series. All images by Alberto.

A CompSci major, a Cognitive Science one and a Linguist on exchange walk into a hackathon. Besides being the start to the world’s most boring joke, this was how one of the best weekends I’ve had during my time here began. I can think of no experience that better captures everything I’m loving about my exchange in the States than Hamp Hack 2016. The spirit of collaboration, a steady stream of cool ideas and technology, and an interdisciplinary worldview were all present in the same way they are in the classrooms at UMass.

Hamp Hack 2016


The dream team at Hamp Hack 2016.

When I heard that the nearby Hampshire College would be hosting their first interdisciplinary hackathon I signed up without hesitation. This being the first hackathon I had ever attended I was not quite sure what was in store. Held on the last weekend in February, Hamp Hack exceeded all of my expectations. Our team had great fun building projects with technologies we’d never come across before. We were instantly drawn to NeuroSky’s MindWave EEG headset. Despite our initial qualms about having to learn C# in an evening we were soon in awe of being able to communicate with our computers by simply wearing this ‘mind-reading’ diadem. Our idea of developing a mind-controlled YouTube interface was borne out of a desire to make something that would have a ‘real world’ application – in this case helping people with physical disabilities navigate the web.

Our program cycled through controls (play video, switch to fullscreen, ‘like’ video, etc.) when the user blinked and employed a clever workaround to detect when a user wanted to ‘click’ on something. The torrent of alpha, beta and theta waves picked up by the device was such that we couldn’t rely on a single one to accurately signify a desire to ‘click’. However, we found out that swallowing created a signal noisy enough that we could easily isolate and use as an indicator for ‘clicks’ – importantly, this was an action that a person with a disability would be able to carry out.

With 10 hours still on the clock we decided to switch our attention to combining linguistics and tech. Abandoning C# and returning to the comforting familiarity all three of us shared with Python, we felt ambitious. Making use of a sentiment analysis API (developed by indico.io, one of the sponsors at the event) and a Twitter scraper (which I spun-off from one I had recently made for my Computational Linguistics class) we put together some maps of the Twittersphere’s feelings towards presidential candidates.

Bleary-eyed, sleep deprived yet incredibly happy, I reflected upon the last twenty-four hours. I realised that hackathons are just as much about making connections as they are about technology. The people you meet, meshing your skills with theirs, networking with sponsors and making the most of their kindness – be it promo codes for free domains or credits to make ridiculous numbers of calls to a machine learning API – are all just as important as walking out of a hackathon having made something you’re proud of.

Bernie, Boston, and Ben & Jerry’s


February was Vermont flavoured with Boston swirls.

But what have I been getting up to on weekends when I have not traded sleep for code? For one, attending a rally held by Bernie Sanders at UMass in mid-February was quite the experience. The energy and scale of the rally were remarkable, and talking to people in the crowd about the presidential race was very interesting.

Additionally, I visited Boston with a group of friends who are here on an exchange from Stirling. Though we only stayed overnight we liked Boston immensely, greatly enjoyed taking in the city’s history and visiting Cambridge.

Finally, we also ventured north on an ice cream pilgrimage to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont. Besides overindulging in frozen treats we made time to see Montpellier, the state capital, and explored some of the snow-covered wooded areas we came across on our road trip.

All in all, this is turning out to be a very positive experience and I cannot wait to see what the coming weeks have in store.